We, the people

  • Esther van Messel, Founder & CEO

    Esther van Messel, born 1965 in Vienna, lives in Switzerland and holds a BfA in Film & Television and in History from the University of Tel Aviv. In 1990, she joined Warner Bros. Israel and became Head of Distribution. From 1992 she produced international feature films and documentaries as Head of Co-Production and Sales for an independent production company in Zurich. Since 1998, Esther van Messel runs her own company FIRST HAND FILMS in Zurich and Berlin. FHF represents around 300 hand-picked films and 200 producers from all over the world and acts as Executive Producer for selected projects. FHF is present at all major festivals around the year, produces, sells and also distributes films theatrically in Swiss cinemas. Today, First Hand Films have been seen by hundreds of millions of people.
  • Nicole Biermaier, Head of Swiss Distribution

    Born 1971 to a French speaking mother and a German father, lives and works in Zurich. Nicole spent some significant years of working and wandering in London and Paris.

    She holds a Master of Arts and studied in Zurich at the Media Art department where she focused on interactive video, film, text, sound and experimented at the Film Department with 16mm essay film. At the University of Arts & ZKM in Karlsruhe it got even better, and she focused on experimental, essayistic documentary film. 2008-2010 Nicole researched at the Master class of Fine Arts within the field of expanded cinema.

    Throughout all of that, Nicole earned her living in a number of well-known international companies with administrational work. She used the knowledge gained in such an economical environment for her production work within the arts. Since 2000, Nicole has been developing and conducting many works in the field of art, theatre or film. Her projects have been exhibited and screened internationally. At the same time she was teaching and mentoring at the Universities in Bern and Zurich.

    Since June 2015 Nicole is part of the team at First Hand Films. She is happy to say goodbye to a time where earning money consisted of having 7 jobs or projects simultaneously and has many ideas for a fruit- and colourful future at the firm.

  • Shan Guo, Executive Assistant

    Born and raised in China, lives in Germany, works in Zurich. She studied Communication and Cultural Management, Media Management in Germany, East Asian Art History, Film Studies and Japanese in Zurich. She worked as a journalist in German as well as in Chinese media industry, such as SWR 4 Bodensee Radio, Deutsche Welle and CCTV News Channel; and also worked as a technical coordinator assistant for an international film distributor in Germany.

    Film is her passion, she believes film has a special magic – a freedom of expression, when filmmakers express their attitudes toward life and the world through their art. Shan is fascinated by this attractive magic of film. She loves to share good films with people worldwide, films that make people laugh, cry and think.

  • Shiran Shmerling, Sales & Finances

    Born and raised in Switzerland, Shiran moved to Israel to study film and television at Tel Aviv University. After completing her Bachelor’s Degree, she got an international MBA at Tel Aviv International School while also certifying for the international Skipper’s license. She speaks seven languages and is learning the eighth now, Arabic.

    Before joining First Hand Films, Shiran grew her Airbnb business in Tel Aviv into an outstanding travel experience for her guests. At First Hand Films, Shiran is combining her varied experience and is in charge of the company’s financial controlling with a focus on international online sales, growing its digital offering.

  • Daniel Schneider, Production

    Daniel strives to create playful work that doesn’t compromise on meaning. He holds an M.A. in Economics from the University of Zürich. When studying complex datasets and abstract economic models, he became fascinated by the power of visual communication and that of a good story, translating buck naked information into something relatable and joyful. 

    He previously worked as creative director and COO of a small creative agency in Switzerland for 3+ years and is now synchronizing creative and economic aspects of a colorful palette of film projects as a Junior Producer at FHF. He is currently based in Zürich. 

  • Sarah Rathgeb, Production

    Born and raised in the canton of Bern, Sarah completed her Bachelor’s degree in Directing and Production at the Zurich University of the Arts. She moved to Leipzig where she studied Media Arts and completed her Master’s degree in Directing at ECAL/Head in Lausanne and Geneva. At First Hand Films she works in production and uses her experience in film to acquire and supervise new projects. 

  • Angelina Hofer, Swiss Distribution

    Born and raised in Basel, Angelina holds a Master of Arts in Media Studies & German Literature with a focus on Media Aesthetics and Film History. Until she found her predestined way to the University of Basel she got a Bachelor Degree in Primary Education at Fachhochschule Nordwestschweiz and worked for a bunch of years as a primary teacher as well as a passionate bartender in Basel’s liveliest bars.
    Before joining First Hand Films in 2021, Angelina was the Head of Public Relations at Stadtkino Basel. She is looking forward to using her many communicative talents, her powerful queerfeminist impact and her loving fascination for the cinematic to achieve great things together with the team.

  • Mirja Schnarwiler, Swiss Distribution Assistant

    Born and raised in a small village near Lucerne, Mirja spent some time in New York after finishing high school, trying to figure out where to continue her studies. She then decided to stay close to home and attended the University of Lucerne, from where she graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in sociology and communications in 2020. Led by her passion and love for movies she started an internship in film distribution. Now she looks forward to applying and improving the already acquired knowledge and skills as part of the distribution team at First Hand Films.

  • Kat Woodtli, Associate Writer

    Kat Woodtli grew up in Switzerland, the USA and Australia. She holds a BA (Hons) in Film and TV Production and an MA in Cinema, Film and Industry from the University of Westminster and a BA focusing on Creative Writing from the Open University (UK). She worked on Wes Anderson’s and Tim Burton’s stop motion features before venturing into screenwriting. Her passion lies in bringing to life untold stories about remarkable historical figures with a focus on women and the LGBTQ+ community.

    After living in London and Berlin for twenty years, she’s excited to be back on her home turf as First Hand Films’ first associate writer.

  • Hansjürgen Schmölzer, Partner BSX

    Hansjürgen Schmölzer studied law and media science at the University of Graz. He is founder of the Austrian film- & mediaproduction group BSX-Schmölzer GmbH and joined First Hand Films with his company as partner, aiming to strengthen the international co-production competences of both partners and to jointly develop new documentary films from promising talents on an international level.

    With his company group in Austria and Croatia he produces documentary films, cultural-publications and -projects. He is manager and editor of the Austrian cultural network platform CREATIVE AUSTRIA and author and director of documentary films focussing on topics of human rights, political conflicts and cultural- and contemporary-history.

    He was awarded with the Globe Award for the worldwide best marketed cultural project (Graz 2003 Cultural Capital of Europe).”